Mass Effect is an ambitious videogame released by Bioware in 2007; set in the near future of 2183, it presents us with a human race that has recently managed to escape the confines of its solar system; by discovering and appropriating ancient technology left behind by a previous civilization, humans have entered a galactic arena dominated by the so-called council-races, a trifecta of powerful civilizations striving to maintain peace and order in the galaxy. The game picks up when our hero, a man or woman called Shepard, takes part in the shakedown run of a brand new space vessel, christened “Normandy”…
The game is a bold attempt at mixing a number of different styles of gameplay, most notably elements of action-packed 3rd-person shooting and classic RPG, against a vivid and well-exposed background of spacefaring, expansion and intrigue, rendered alive to the player through its massive lore and the paragon/renegade dialogue system, which allows the players to tailor its reaction to the events of the game, up to and including some massively important (in-game, at least) and ethically ambiguous choices. Perhaps predictably, this approach yields some of the best and worst experiences in the game. Mass Effect has a number of flaws – many of whom have the mitigating circumstance of being the result of a trailblazing effort – and the most glaring are, to me, most clearly exposed when the game overextends itself. Conversely, when the game remains within the confines of its comfort zone, it produces a number of memorable moments.
What, then, are these confines? Mass Effect is firmly rooted in the tradition of military space opera: most, if not all, of the active agents are in the military (or a paramilitary organization), have ties to them, or behave as if they did. Most of the problems encountered are resolved by military means: gunfight, the promise of gunfight, intimidation. Civilians are present, but often play little or no role, except as victims, or passive players. Given how peaceful and civilized council space appears to be, it is no big surprise that most of the game takes place at the borders of council space (and beyond). Humans in Mass Effect are presented in an interesting light: while they are the latest players to emerge on the galactic stage, they are depicted neither as blue-eyed newcomers, struck in awe by the superiority of the other races, nor as callously belligerent, as is so often the case. Rather, their recent arrival lends them a vitality that seems to miss from the older, more established civilizations; by rapidly expanding their influence across the galaxy, they quickly gain political clout, and are, at the beginning of the game, seemingly on the verge of becoming the newest race to join the council, something no other race has managed to do in a long time. The game also seems to understand how easy it is to turn alien races into cardboard cutouts: flat characters based on a few stereotypes; the game seems to respond to this by embracing the “planet of the hats” concept at the civilation level, but contrasting this by showcasing members of each race displaying different behaviours, motivations, and emotions. In particular when it comes to characters important to the plot, none more so than NPCs, this is further developed by instilling extra depth and complexity to each of their personalities.
It is when the games steps out of these bounds that in its ambitiousness it trips itself. The sandbox-like planetary exploration it boasts yields a number of boring small maps traversable by vehicle (though some with pretty awesome skyboxes), repetitive side-quests and reused assets for combat sequences – a trade-off between meaningful content and granting a sense of galactic scale that mostly falls flat. Perhaps understanding the difficulties implicit in attempting to depict large-scale ambients full of people, the game mostly takes place in deserted outposts; the one central hub that is employed (the Citadel) remains rather unimpressive in its attempt to expouse a necessary sense of grandeur with the vital elements of gameplay design that drive the plot forward (this is an issue that each game in the trilogy has attempted to solve in a different way).
The plot is relatively standard, and employs early and often the devices of foreshadowing and bait-and-switch types of plot twists; neither feels overly forced in the course of the main quest – a quest that is modular in nature and can be tackled in a non-linear fashion. The game also features a loosely circular structure, ending where it began (excluding the first few hours which amount to little more than a glorified tutorial) – a feature that will become a staple of the trilogy.
The result is a jarring experience that shines best when the game cajoles the player into its strengths, turning into something of a slog when it inevitably attempts to do too much. It is, all things considered, a game that deserves to be replayed from time to time. 10 years after its initial release, I will attempt to do just that, using the opportunity to observe in better detail the highs and lows this game has to offer.
For my playthrough, I will be creating a paragon male Shepard, basically an honourable soldier with a good heart. I will most probably not get romantically involved; of the three romances in the game, one option is closed by default due to gender, and of the other two, one’s character is unfortunately going to wane as the trilogy goes on, while the other will wax, but mostly due to how uninspiring the romance for this first game is written; that said, nothing is written in stone, and I reserve the right to change my mind. I will get the spectre weapons at some point, thus allowing me to bypass most of the boring and problematic aspects of the inventory, though to remain somewhat lore-friendly, I will only get them for actual spectres. I have made one modification to the game files: combat in the Mako forces a penalty on experience in the game, and I have equalized the xp gains; this is done in the interest of expediting relatively trivial encounters that would otherwise gain unnecessary length due to the need of exiting the mako and finishing enemies on foot – there is only a finite amount of experience in the game; furthermore, this way we actually get to experience fighting from our trusty ground vehicle!